October 2009

Come on in, the view's lovely! That's it, just a little further....

The vegetable grower faces many challenges. The weather can be inclement – too much rain can rot your crops, too much sun can dry them out; seeds can fail to germinate, and unseen germs and diseases can destroy them even if they do.

But the biggest trouble comes from pests. Snails, slugs, birds, aphids have all wreaked brutal – and frankly grossly unfair – havoc on my precious vegetables over the years.

This year, however, I have a new worst enemy. A rapacious and cunning foe, one that has wrought terrible damage on my newly-planted bulbs and stolen the seeds from the bird feeder. An ugly enemy, grey like a rainy morning, face like a rat and tail like a toilet brush.

I call this enemy “Squirrel”. Not your cute adorable little native red squirrel, but the muscle-bound bully from over the Atlantic that has so successfully colonised these shores. In retrospect it seemed like an unfair fight from the start. Imagine Arnold Schwartzenneger versus Ralph Fiennes.

Picture the scene: there’s handsome, waif-like Ralph sitting there under a tree, perhaps declaiming sonnets as he plucks his lute. The sunlight suddenly disappears. Ralph looks up, puzzled. Standing over him, blocking the early evening sunset, is a large and ufly Austrian-American.

“Hey, girly man. Vot are you doing? “

“Why fine sir, I am playing my lute. Would you care to join me?”

“Vot? Lutes are for pansies unt Englishmen. Now give me your food and leave zis land.”

“I say, that’s not fair! You can’t do that! Sir, I challenge you to a bout of fisticuffs!”

Even a Hollywood scriptwriter would struggle to find a happy ending from such a position. You can see how the red squirrel didn’t stand much of a chance.

Until now, that is. You see, I found a wonderful little contraption on the intranet. A humane squirrel trap. A small metal cage, it has a spring-loaded door that snaps shut when there is pressure on the panel at the other end of the cage.

No more will those evil hairballs dig up and munch their way through my herbaceous border! Today we begin the fightback!

I baited the trap – apparently popcorn and peanut butter are ideal – in the evening, left it on the patio and went to bed a happy man. I slept the sleep of the righteous and awoke refreshed.

Like a child at Christmas looking for snow, I flung back the curtains to gaze upon the patio!

Nothing. An empty cage. Hmm. That evening I set the trap again. The next day, nothing. And this time the bait had been eaten. Truly a worthy adversary.

I moved the trap further down the garden. Perhaps they were shy? Again, I went to sleep confident that the morning would reveal a prize catch. The next morning I jumped up and looked down the garden.

The trap was partly hidden behind the tree. It looked empty. I sighed. But wait! Did I see something move inside the cage?

On the ipod while waiting: Buffalo Springfield / For what it’s worth. Stop children, what’s that sound?


Beauty uncontained

Have you ever seen anything so beautiful? I’m not sure I want to eat them: I could just sit and stare at them for hours on end, marvelling at their cream-and-maroon speckled loveliness. Hard to believe something so perfect could come from my allotment.

They are of course borlotti beans. I’ve grown them this year for the first time and I’ve been harvesting them for a month or so now. And with that statement comes a little confession: I’ve never eaten borlotti beans, no idea whether or not I like the taste, don’t have any particular recipes I’m dying to try them in. And you know what, I’m not sure I’m even bothered about eating them.

You see, I only grew them because I think they look really pretty. There. I’ve said it. As a regular reader of this blog you may have fallen for the misconception that I am an uber-professional gardener, channeling nature’s power to produce previously unseen quantities of hihg class fruit and vegetable for domestic consumption.

But no. I am in fact a shabbily amateurish and staggeringly shallow incompetent. Not only that, but I grow perfectly edible vegetables simply because I like to sit and look at them.

Still, at least if you’re going to do it you may as well do it in style. And you don’t get more stylish than the borlotti. These glamorous Italians just ooze class, from the gently dappled pods that house the beans in their pearl-coloured beds to the beans themselves, little orbs of richly hued beauty. Sitting in their storage jar on my shelf they look more like a jar of sweets in a Victorian shop that a tub of dried vegetables.

And it gets better than that. Another big attraction of the borlotti is the ease of growing: once they’re up and running you don’t have to worry about picking them at just the right time. As long as you’re happy to store them for use as dried beans and not eat them fresh you can just leave them on the plant while it fades and dies. This has the happy side effect of effectively drying the beans for you. A couple of days somewhere dry indoors and the crisp papery pods are ready to be relieved of their bounty for storage.

But enough of the growing tips. If you’ll excuse me there’s a  jar in my kitchen that needs someone to sit and stare adoringly at it.

On the ipod while in a state of bliss: Babybird / You’re gorgeous. Oh you are, you lovely little beans, you are

Work, work, work

Right, that’s it. Seeds planted in Spring? Check. Watered and nurtured in early Summer? Check. Consumed with smug satisfaction from mid Summer onwards? Check. Vegetables die, are cleared away, feet put up for well-earned Winter rest? Che….huh?

Bloody hell, it never stops, does it? Just when I was thinking that my year’s work was done and I could take it easy for a bit, the seed and bulb catalogues start dropping through the letterbox, planning for next season needs to start. And some things need planting already!

It seems odd to write about it while we’re in the middle of harvest season, but already the seed packets are piling up in the greenhouse and I am drooling about next year’s new and improved vegetable growing. And as you can see from the pic, some of the garlic has already been planted.

This should give the bulbs a head start and ensure that they are even plumper even earlier next season. It didn’t quite work out that way this year, with all my winter-planted garlic producing marble-sized bulbs, many of which were split or mouldy.

I’m loath to name and shame the supplier just in case – I know, this is crazy talk – I did something wrong at my end, but this year the garlic comes from Seeds of Italy and The Organic Gardening Catalogue, both of which have served me well in the past.

But what I am doing wasting time telling you about it? I should be in the garden planting…

On the ipod while working hard: The Cure / Boys don’t cry. Obviously not. But surely every now and then they sniffle a little bit? All that weeding, planting, watering – it’s just a little overwhelming sometimes. Hypothetically speaking, of course.


One of the great things about having an allotment is that it gives me extra room to grow things that take up loads of space. Sqaush are a prime example of this: they can spread out to cover 4-5m sq of soil if you’re not careful, and that’s just not practical in most city gardens.

So top of my list on getting the allotment were squash plants. I stuck in some seeds at the start of the summer, and then later on saw some unknown squash plants at the kids’ school summer fair.

Unable to resist, I spent the last of the ice cream money on a couple of plants. Ignoring the plaintive wailing I promised the boys untold delights as the mysterious plant bore its fruit.

This is how the adventure began. An adventure that led to my growing the biggest squash you have ever seen. Me! On my humble allotment!

I planted the innocent-looking thing, unaware of the joy it would bring, and watered it. Over the next few weeks I fed it regularly, acknowledging that hoary old adage that you can never overfeed a squash. It started to grow. Vigorously.

After a month or two some of the flowers started forming fruits. I started to get excited. Going down to the plot at weekends, I was able to track the progress. Imagine my surprise when, in just a week or two, the fruits grew to the size of small pumpkins! What variety had I bought? How big would they get?

They kept on growing. Within a month of appearing, the squash were now the size of beachballs. Neighbouring plot holders were starting to comment admiringly. I kept on feeding. They kept growing.

Late August and things were getting ridiculous. By now I had given up feeding the plants, but they carried on undeterred. I came back from a couple of weeks’ holiday to find awe-struck allotmenteers pointing at my plot. The squash were now over 1m tall and wide and starting to cast a shade on next door’s plot. Stories abounded of how the geriatric vegetable thief in the corner plot had put his back out trying to steal one. People began to ask my advice on all sorts of growing matters. The local paper left me messages about a possible feature.

And still they grew! Now they were almost head high. I was beginning to wonder how long it would take to eat them, and also how I might be able to fit them into a saucepan. Or the kitchen, for that matter.

Eventually I decided enough was enough. Borrowing an axe from a friend I spent an hour hacking through the stalks to stop the growing once and for all. I won’t bore you with the details of how I moved them off the plot, but before cooking them I placed them on the clean white sheet you see above to capture their glory on film.

But then it occured to me. Yes, they look beautiful in the photo above, but without any sense of perspective you can’t really appreciate their size. However, as luck would have it, just before I moved them a few friends were passing my plot. Members of the Beckenham Allotment Historical Re-enactment Society, they were on their way to a re-enactment of the Siege of Carthage.

I asked them to pose for a photo next to the smallest of the squashes. They kindly obliged. You can see the results in the pic below, which gives some idea of the actual size of the squashes:

Two gentlemen in fancy dress posing alongside quite a large squash

On the ipod while stirring a bathtub of squash soup: Kate Nash / Pumpkin Song. Nothing to do with pumpkins as far as I can tell from the lyrics, but a nice song.